Wednesday, July 12, 2006

How Opah Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life

How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life by Kaavya Viswanathan. In case you are wondering, who is Kaavya and Opal and why should I care, check out the wikipedia explanation of the whole mess. My prior posts on this are here and here.

So why did I read this? Because I wanted to come to my own conclusions.

My conclusions?

I would not have picked up on the plagiarized passages.

But, that doesn't change my opinion that they are significant.

I cannot understand why this was published adult and not YA. Right after this discussion about what is and isn't a YA, one of my pages who is starting college in the fall was talking about her to be read pile, and all the books that are about kids starting college in the fall and how psyched she is that these books exist. The question of where to place a book about an 18 year old matters, not because of the publisher but because it's important that the person looking for such a book find it.

While I didn't pick up on the plagiarism, I did keep thinking "this reminds me of teen movies," most noticeably Mean Girls. I was pleased to see that Kirkus had the same reaction.

I found that I could not read this as a comedy; and I kept conflating Opal and Kaavya. I kept reading it as if I were reading about Kaavya.

Knowing what we all know now, my primary reaction is that (aside from that whole P thing), Kaavya did not have the necessary distance to write truthfully about her experience in fictional form. She's still too close. Opal never questions her parents' intrusiveness into her life. She never questions that they come up with a scheme that uses people. With some more distance, perhaps, Kaavya may have been able to judge the parents who push their children relentlessly, in an anything-goes manner. With distance, including distance from Harvard, she may have questioned that goal and questioned what that goal means. She may have wondered about the haves versus the have-nots, in a way other than the token Natalie character. Yes, Opal gives up a scholarship so that Natalie may win it; it's the only way that Natalie may go to an Ivy league school. But Opal wins that scholarship because she voted for herself. Had she voted for Natalie, Natalie would have won. Yet that is the reader's knowledge; Opal never acknowledges it, instead thinking only that she has given something away.

We can all be selfish and self centered; teenagers especially. That Opal doesn't realize this is normal; but a good writer would realize this and be aware. Some of my favorite moments in YA books are when the main character realize that there is a world of people independent of the character. This book does not have such a moment; Opal is and remains self centered; towards the end, she muses, "sitting on the front steps, I found it easy to believe that I was the only person in the world and that all the stars were meant for me."

The review in the Harvard Independent (by Allie Pape written after the accusations) captured many of my thoughts:

Sure, it's easy to mock the poor kids still slaving in college limbo and to castigate their high-pressure parents, but no one (including Viswanathan) is addressing what these kids really need to know: that life is okay, and even probably better, without beef fajita fettuccine from Annenberg, or three a.m. naps on a Lamont desk, or Harvey Mansfield. In a book like this, Viswanathan could only protect either Harvard or its aspirants, and she chose Harvard. Naturally, Harvard and its success-hungry students have an obligation to maintain an image of pristine, diverse, heartwarming intellectualism and community; if we didn't, Lehman Brothers would stop calling, and God knows what we'd all do then. But for the qualified and overqualified kids who come up just a little bit short in the college admissions war, this book perpetuates the feeling that their lives as they know it are over - and they'll think that until second semester of freshman year at the earliest.

Kaavya, still attending this school, didn't have the distance to write the truly great, truly funny story about kids chasing the college admission dream. Allie ends her review with, "Maybe I'm just a sucker for the Horatio Alger story (or for self-hatred), but seeing a privileged, intelligent girl get into Harvard against the "odds" seems flat in comparison to seeing someone with real things at stake (and without a safety net) make it to the big dance."

I had hoped for more from Opal; but maybe, it's impossible for me to read the book that was read by editors and the initial reviewers. Because I know that just as Opal did anything necessary to get into Harvard, so, too, did Kaavya do anything necessary for this book. I know; I know what Kaavya did to get into school. I know what went into writing Opal. I cannot read this book and not know it.

Another post-p review was done by the Village Voice.


Melissa Rabey said...

I, too, had trouble picking up the lifted passages, and I read Opal Mehta after the whole plagiarism brouhaha. But I agree with you that it should have been published as YA--if it got published at all. Frankly, I found it marginal, at best, for all the reasons you talk about in your post.

Anonymous said...

"Kaavya did not have the necessary distance to write truthfully about her experience in fictional form."

And this is what is FUNDAMENTALLY wrong with this book. (There were also many cultural inaccuracies, but I'll not get into them here.)


Liz B said...

Thanks for all your insights.

Pooja, I love your website.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for your kind words. I LOVE your blog; I visit every day!